By Paul Szydelko
Try “because” instead of “in view of the fact that.” Consider using “under” the contract rather than “pursuant to” the contract. Write “among other things” and not “inter alia.” Use just enough relevant examples to make your point. Prune extraneous details.
First-year law students arriving on UNLV’s campus tend to feel obligated to sprinkle legal jargon, pack every contingency, and pour all precedents into documents they write, says UNLV Boyd Law professor Joe Regalia.
That’s why one of the faculty’s top priorities is to help those students understand that judges and attorneys aren’t remote 15th-century barristers keen on elegant turns of phrase. They’re time-pressed people who appreciate and even reward brevity, clarity, and simplicity—especially amid the COVID-19 pandemic, which made concise writing even more imperative.
Lawyers who can refine a bloated 10-page draft into two tightly crafted pages thrive in any situation. “What is the rule? What are the relevant facts? Why do you think I should rule one way or the other?” Regalia says. “Succinct writing makes it exponentially easier for the judge to do their job and move on to the next case. And they are so grateful for that.”
Regalia is one of many UNLV Boyd Law faculty members at the forefront of research on the best ways to improve students’ writing. It’s a big reason why the law school has been rated No. 1 for legal writing for three consecutive years in U.S. News & World Report’s Best Graduate School rankings.
The not-so-secret sauce? Professors like Regalia immediately ask students to write real-world documents, then consistently provide detailed feedback.
Even when making nuanced arguments, students are empowered to develop their own voice, be in the driver’s seat, and avoid archaic formalisms. They explore techniques to efficiently convey not only needed information but also vividly express their experience and perspective in their writing.
Regalia’s strategy is not to overwhelm students with a bunch of techniques but instead pick a few at a time and show them how to improve their writing. The best legal writers even adopt the time-tested tools of a novelist, he says.
“They use a very simple sentence structure and very familiar, simple word choice,” Regalia says of top legal writers. “They use storytelling techniques with imagery-laden language. They use lots of examples to put their audience in their client’s position.”
Not that she will be confused with a best-selling suspense novelist, but U.S. Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is considered among the best current legal writers. “She has fully adopted the approaches we’ve been talking about in terms of communicating with people like they’re people, communicating not like you’re a lawyer but like you’re a human being who is trying to help them understand something,” Regalia says of Kagan.
Regalia views legal writing as such a vital skill that it comprised about 50 percent of the agenda for his second Virtual Lawyering Bootcamp, a collaboration between the law school and Southern Nevada legal community. The optional noncredit program that Regalia organized earlier this year featured live sessions over three weeks, in addition to other online material. The other half covered technology (such as e-discovery and analytics tools) and other practical-skills training (such as working as a team and managing projects).
Regalia says he’s proud to be part of a faculty that’s committed to teaching UNLV Boyd Law students how to get to the crux of matters quickly so they can communicate and persuade effectively.
After all, it’s no coincidence that the most successful lawyers doing the most exciting work—be it arguing before the U.S. Supreme Court, serving as counsel for Fortune 500 corporations, or impactfully litigating for the public’s interest—are the best writers. Notes Regalia: “They spend more time on their writing, because they know that’s how you change the law and change outcomes for clients.”